Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon—once a bustling metropolis—has become a relative ghost town amid a heavy security lockdown and a declaration of war on the ruling military junta by the country’s shadow National Unity Government (NUG), according to residents.
Prior to the spread of the coronavirus and the military takeover, tens of thousands of people would gather on religious holidays at the sacred Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar’s most populous city, which is home to more than 7 million residents.
However, on Sept. 20 this year—a day that would normally see multitudes marking the full moon—only a few hundred pilgrims made the trip to pay homage at the holy site, also popular with tourists, where uniformed and plain-clothed security forces stood guard at its four gateways.
Yangon resident Su Su told RFA’s Myanmar Service that it had been ages since she was able to visit Shwedagon Pagoda.
“I visited famous sites like Shwedagon, as well as Sule and Kaba Aye Pagodas, quite frequently in the past, but I haven’t been there for more than two years due to the surge of COVID-19 cases and the military coup,” she said.
“Now, it seems like there is an entire army battalion on the pagoda. When you visit, the first thing you see is the soldiers, and we had no interest in meeting with them. You can never tell what might happen.”
Other residents told RFA that the streets of downtown Yangon, which used to be constantly congested with traffic and pedestrians, are free of crowds during the day and eerily silent at night.
Myanmar’s military overthrew the democratically elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government on Feb. 1, claiming the party had stolen the country’s November 2020 ballot through voter fraud.
The junta has yet to provide evidence of its claims and has violently repressed anti-coup protests, killing at least 1,120 people and arresting 6,698 others, according to the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP). More than 1,700 have been arrested in the Yangon region, which was once the epicenter of demonstrations against the coup.
According to reporting by RFA, police killed at least 134 people in Yangon alone between Feb. 1 and Sept. 21 as the result of crackdowns, arbitrary arrests, and torture. The city was the stage for weeks of huge mass protests in the wake of the coup that tapered off as repression intensified.
Center of resistance
On Sept. 7, Duwa Lashi La, interim president of the five-month-old NUG, declared a nationwide state of emergency and called for open rebellion against junta rule, prompting an escalation of attacks on military targets by various allied pro-democracy militias and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs).
Residents said that since the NUG announcement, Yangon has become one of the most dangerous cities for those who resist the military regime.
Dora, a 30-year-old woman from Yangon’s Bahan township, said she had to even be careful about what she wears when she leaves her home.
“I live in fear. When I go out, I cannot wear a black shirt or a black mask, as black indicates mourning [junta rule],” she said.
“I cannot carelessly take out my phone. If there are any photos or posts related to the anti-junta movement or protests, they must be deleted.”
A 42-year-old woman in Yangon’s South Dagon township, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that she lives in fear that her son will be arrested or killed in a bomb blast while doing his job as a garbage collector.
“I have to pray that nothing is happening to my son because there are regular explosions around the city,” she said, adding that he is the family’s primary breadwinner.
“I want to go out on my own and earn some money, but I have an illness. I can’t do anything with my two other children at home.”
According to RFA’s records, there have been 22 bomb blasts in Yangon since July, including in the townships of South Okkalapa, North Okkalapa, Twantay, North Dagon, Shwe Pyi Thar, Pazundaung, Hlaing, Bahan, Mayangone, Thanlyin and Kayan.
Ma Nyo, a woman in Thaketa township, said she personally transports her 16-year-old son back and forth from his job an electronics salesman each day.
“There is no security outside, and I am always worried,” she said.
“When my son goes to work, I have to send him and pick him up myself. But I’m always worried until he gets home.”
Ma Nyo noted that every time a bomb goes off in the city, security forces conduct random searches and raid nearby homes.
‘No rule of law’
Kyaw Gyi, a taxi driver in Tamway township, said he is constantly on the lookout for danger from passengers in his car as a result of the frequent inspections.
“I have to be careful when people stop me on the road, and when my passengers exit, I need to check what is left behind, because you don’t want to get injured or killed if something is left in the car,” he said.
“I dare not speak freely because I have no idea who the passenger might be.”
A 20-year-old man from South Dagon township said he lives in fear of the military’s daily arrests.
“The soldiers can arrest anyone they want—if you are a suspect, there is nothing you can do because you will be dragged away and beaten,” said the man, who declined to be named.
Residents told RFA that most inspections and arrests take place at night, when authorities suddenly force open locks and enter homes.
“I think this is the worst time we have seen in Yangon,” said Nang Lin, a leader of the University Old Students Movement.
“The nearly 7 million residents of the city are feeling insecure and helpless and are living in constant anxiety because there is no way to protect their lives or property,” he said.
“There is no rule of law, as the laws will not protect us from anything.”
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.